22nd January 2022

Two hundred years ago today, the shareholders of the Stockton & Darlington Railway Company elected George Stephenson as their Engineer. He had previously been appointed as the surveyor to alter the route suggested by Overton so that it was more suitable for locomotives (and cheaper to run).

Alterations to George Overton’s route by George Stephenson at the hillier west end of the line. Stephenson’s more direct route using steam powered stationary engines is in red. Overton’s earlier proposed route using horse power is in blue. Extract from a larger plan held at the Durham Records Office Q/D/P/8

The meeting was held at the Company’s office in High Row, Darlington and Stephenson was offered an annual salary of £660 from which he was to fund the services of assistants. He was directed to proceed at once on those parts of the line that already had consent from Parliament while the company sought another Act to agree Stephenson’s altered route. From that day on, it was all systems go on the railway that would get the world on track.

Stephenson got to work right away as instructed. By February 8th he had already staked out the route from Stockton to Oak Tree and the Yarm branch. Soon after he travelled to London to inspect oak blocks for sleepers at the east end of the line and to South Wales to inspect the casting of rails and chairs ordered from the Neath Abbey Ironworks. Back north, he concluded an arrangement at Brusselton to supply stone blocks for the western portion of the line at 5 pence each.

Brusselton Incline with stone sleepers quarried from the hill to the left of the image

Stephenson didn’t just design the trackbed and the track. He also designed the Gaunless Bridge with its innovative lenticular construction and held together using only opposing forces, making bolts and other fixings redundant.

Stephenson’s Gaunless Bridge photographed much later in 1901 just before the ironwork was replaced

He was also commissioned to design the all-important coal and lime depots along the line. He took too much on and was removed from designing the Skerne Bridge in Darlington when he was unable to make progress on it and was replaced by Ignatius Bonomi. With the establishment of Robert Stephenson & Co in 1823 in Newcastle and Robert’s subsequent vanishing act to South America, George was also left to design Locomotion No.1 (or Active as she was first known as) with support from his well-respected and knowledgeable colleague, Timothy Hackworth who would, in 1825, become the company’s new resident engineer and first locomotive superintendent.

So hooray for a great decision by the S&DR shareholders and hooray to George Stephenson for getting the world on track.

The opening day of the S&DR with the Skerne bridge in the foreground and the Darlington branch in the distance terminating in a high level track supported on arches at the depot.

We recognise the achievements of George Stephenson in our Stephenson Collection of specially designed gifts and vintage railwayana from earlier S&DR celebrations.